The physical challenges of thru-hiking are nothing to scoff at- clambering over snow chutes, lugging a 25-pound pack, the constantly changing muscle and joint pains- but the biggest hurdle I’ve faced on trail has been entirely mental.
I’ve struggled with anxiety for a long time, from job stress or social situations, but I’ve been able to manage it successfully for the past decade- anxiety hasn’t been severely affecting my every day life. Then, somewhere in the first two hundred miles, a particularly tough stretch of trail started getting to me. I’ve never been an athlete, so adapting to the physical strains of hiking every day was taking its toll. I wasn’t sure I’d be capable of hiking the necessary miles each day to get us to water or a good campsite, and I was anxious that my slow hiking speed would wear on Tim, whose year of training and ridiculously long legs meant he was far better equipped for hiking than I was. I get nervous when I’m not in control of my environment, which is sort of the primary condition of being a hiker.
These fears started tumbling over each other and building up in my mind until I just started crying while stumbling forward, deaf to Tim’s reassurances or my own logical mind’s reasoning. The first time this happened, we were saved by trail magic and friends under a highway overpass. Panic attacks have continued to hit me, though, roughly once a week. It usually happens when I’ve gotten poor sleep or haven’t eaten enough, and recognizing that has helped me control them. A particularly tough day can still knock the wind out of my sails, though, and being physically exhausted can be enough to tip me from a normal “gosh that sucked!” frustration into a dark spiral.
The despair I feel in these moments is wildly out of proportion to any actual problems I’m facing in the moment, and any issue I can talk myself out of will be replaced by another one- my panicking brain is just grasping for something to latch onto.
Usually these attacks pass after a half hour or so, with the help of a snack and some water and some soothing words from Tim. Our jump up trail to Ashland threw me for a bit of a loop, however. Finding rental cars for ten people became a multi-day, multi-person effort, and a long drive up to Oregon meant we all got very little sleep (props to our valiant driver, Dan, for his steady hand at the wheel). The change of scenery and terrain was disorienting (if beautiful). We were also hiking with a group in a more structured way for the first time, and I worried both when we were ahead, in case we hit tricky terrain, and when we fell behind, fearing I wasn’t strong enough to keep up. We got into camp late on the first night and had snacks in lieu of a real dinner, so I was perfectly primed for a rolling, continuous panic attack that would last all of the next day.
We were facing long stretches of trail covered in slippery snow, deep tree wells, and slow progress- circumstances that require sustained energy and focus. And it was all I could do to keep walking forward, a step at a time, tears streaming down my cheeks, feeling panicky and disoriented and weak. It’s a horrible feeling, one that overwrites every beautiful moment on the trail, and makes me feel utter despair. What’s amazing is how very different I feel after a big meal and some rest. I no longer recognize that despairing girl; I struggle to remember what made her feel so helpless. I know it’s a chemical problem- it’s one that completely upends my personality.
Healthcare, and especially mental healthcare, on trail is particularly difficult. At our next opportunity, however, I want to visit an urgent care to at least see what options are available to a traveling person with no health insurance. In the meantime, I’m trying to eat and sleep as much as possible. I’m trying to remember the ways in which I’m becoming stronger and more capable- after one thousand miles, I’m finally figuring out how to walk. I’m getting faster and tougher and more confident. I’m surrounded by great people- Tim, and also the brilliant, funny, kind people who make up the Fart Force 5000.
I knew going into the hike that I would struggle with not being in control of my surroundings. We can plan miles and getting water and where we think we’ll camp, but much of hiking is relinquishing to the whims of the trail each day. I had no idea, however, how much that lack of control would affect me, or how quickly physical weakness would affect my mental state. I’m learning to manage it, and being forced to take a closer look at the root causes of my anxiety. In regular life, routine and distractions disguise most anxious feelings; out here, it’s just me and my old brain hanging out all day. Having to confront these issues head on will, I hope, be the ultimate silver lining.